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Dyslexia – Sounds of music

23rd October 2020 

Robinstyle photos

Recently I have been asked by a Music Teacher for any suggestions with regard to supporting a dyslexic student. I am not an expert in music, my only knowledge is an awareness of what I like to listen to and a few unsuccessful guitar lessons as a child in primary school! 

However, I have previously read some research into the effects of dyslexia on music lessons. Also the comparisons between music and language, together with the possible use of music therapy as an intervention to help dyslexics with their difficulties. I thought I would have a slightly deeper look into these issues this week. 

There have been many definitions of dyslexia arising from differing theories. The British Dyslexia Association adopts the following:

the Rose (2009) definition of dyslexia:

“Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia. A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well-founded intervention.”

Phonological awareness

Have you heard of the term ‘phonics’? It’s the correspondence between the written letters and the sounds. Phonological awareness is something different. It comes before the children look at the actual letters. Phonological awareness is all about the ability to listen to language and saying the sounds. 

It’s like the foundation and on top of that comes the literacy building blocks. The stronger the foundations, the blocks have a better chance of success.

The ‘foundations’ can be started early, nursery rhymes/songs introduce rhythm and language sounds. Music may support a child’s awareness in sound patterns.

Sentences are made up of separate words and those words are made up of syllables. Children find clapping out the syllables in everyday objects interesting, see who can find a four syllable word??


If you do type in ‘famous dyslexic people’, you will come up with a lot of names. Many people coming forward and telling their stories; the hurdles they faced and how they coped and succeeded. A lot of creative people; artists, photographers, actors, entrepreneurs, chefs. The list goes on. However, there is not a lot of solid evidence about dyslexic musicians. I am sure there are a lot of fantastic musicians/singers out there (and some are documented) but they don’t seem to be as well represented in the media?

Being musical, I bet, is some dyslexics ‘superpower’! Looking at some of the difficulties they may face in formal training I can see how a ‘strength’ could be turned into an uphill battle. The difficulties in sight music reading, short term auditory memory, music theory lessons, organisation, taking longer to learn new material. 

Also, just as in reading any literature, visual stress can be a problem for some. This is where the notes would appear to move or blur on the page. That would be for an optometrist to assess. Coloured overlays or paper maybe advised. 

The British Dyslexia Association website has a good section on Dyslexia and Music which maybe worth a look at if you are interested in some tips for helping children learning a musical instrument.

Research studies 

There has been a few over the years. I won’t go into them in too much detail but here are a selection.  Please feel free to have a look at these or any others if you so wish.

(Overy 2003) –  In this study it was noted that timing is a difficult area for dyslexic children. That “rhythm skills may need particular attention in any form of musical training with dyslexics”. It is suggested that rhythm and singing games can improve spelling and phonological and auditory skills in dyslexic children. 

(Morais 2010) – This study is considering the connections between  a difficulty in phonological processing and poor musical skills (amusia) and thereafter using music therapy as an intervention of support. They conclude there is no “justification either for the link or for using music therapy to treat dyslexia”. They agree that music and speech do overlap but “musical sounds and phonemes are not the same” ”Musical tones are simply sounds” “Phonemes are purely symbolic and require more interpretation to understand than simply hearing a sound.” They do go on to suggest that music , through its emotional characteristics, might be motivational.

(Weiss  – The enigma of dyslexic musicians 2013) – They recruited 24 professional musicians who reported difficulty reading and compared them with other musicians with similar age and education. The findings were the musicians did well on tests of auditory discrimination, regardless of whether or not they were dyslexic. But, there was a great difference between the groups on tests of auditory working memory. Dyslexics found difficulty in memory span for syllables, melodic patterns and rhythmic patterns. 

They say there are multiple reasons for reading failure, not all dyslexia is the same. Some dyslexics may have problems with auditory discrimination some may not. 

There findings were that “the auditory working memory of dyslexic musicians were consistently poor, including memory for rhythm, melody and speech sounds.” These results point to a discrepancy between their auditory perceptual skill versus their working memory skills. Not what others have said, the sensitivity to speech and non speech sounds. They conclude “auditory working memory remains a bottleneck to the reading accuracy of dyslexic musicians”.

(Goswami 2012) – “Rhythmic timing is important in speech. Great poems with metrical rhythms illustrate this”. She goes on to say that children with dyslexia find it difficult to hear speech rhythm and speech timing. She feels music and poetry may help with their rhythmic difficulties. She refers to the importance of understanding the fluctuation in speech (eg stressed and unstressed syllables) in order to understand the spoken word. 

“Prosody (strong and weak syllable beats) is part of the hidden structural glue that makes individual speech sounds into recognisable words.” 

Prosody = 1. Pattens of stress/intonation in a language

                   2. poetic meter/ patterns of sounds and rhythms in verse.

She says that children with dyslexia have trouble with the sound structure of words. Phonological awareness, difficulty with syllables, rhyme, alliteration, onset and rime. 

Then comes the ‘phonemes’, (which letter symbolises phonemes/sound) these are difficult in English. She considers the possibility that these phonological (then phoneme) difficulties stem from an underlaying difficulty with speech prosody.

Her view is that “the individual differences in perceiving patterns of beat distribution, in both language and music, are intimately connected with reading development and dyslexia.” 

She concludes that “Rhythm is more overt in music than in language, and so a focus on music rhythm along with activities that explicitly link musical beat structure to the beat structure of language may help.” “clapping games, skipping games, nursery rhymes and chants.” 

Katsarou (2018) – A study of 24 Greek children aged between 5 and 8 years old. All with a diagnosis of dyslexia and with no prior musical training. These children were in two groups, experimental and control. The findings indicated that music therapy could help children with dyslexia with their ability to recall words but not so much with their written phonemic awareness. It was found overall that the musical interventions could have a positive effect on improving the linguistic skills of children with dyslexia.

Looking at these studies over the last 10 years I would say having dyslexia first of all should not stop you fulfilling your ambitions if you have a passion for music. Having dyslexia does not mean you can’t be musical as well. Maybe find a music teacher who is aware of your dyslexic difficulties and find the correct instrument and method of instruction for you.

I feel music therapy may improve phonological awareness issues of rhyme and syllable identification. May improve verbal linguistic skills. Not so sure if it can help with phoneme awareness. The complex learning of making letter and sound connections need further multi sensory interventions. 

Auditory working memory is a crucial barrier in learning music which needs further research and support. 

Poems – rhythm, pattern, repetition 

Dr Suess – One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish

moral of rhyme – to see, accept and enjoy the differences in the world.

Robinstyle photos

Here is an extract…….

One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish,

Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.

This one has a littlecar.

This one has a little star.

Say! What a lot of fish there are.

Some have two feet and some have four.

Some have six feet and some have more.

Where do they come from? I can’t say.

But I bet they have come a long, long way.

we see them come, we see them go.

Some are fast. Some are slow.

Not one of them is like another.

Today is gone. 

Today was fun.Tomorrow is another one.

Every day, from here to there.

funny things are everywhere.

There is a pattern and metrical rhythm in the rhyme. Words rhyme at the end of the line.

Often rhymes and singing games are tools already used by teachers to help in the tuition of language. They can help with identifying words that rhyme, being aware of syllables in words and repetition. Dyslexics often find it difficult to hear rhyming words or count and manipulate syllables. 

So for example, in the poem above you could have children listening to it as you read it and they all clap when they hear the words that rhyme. May need a few repetitions!! You could ask for other words that rhyme with ‘fish’ – keeping the ‘rime’ ish and substituting the onset (dish, wish).

Onset and rime activities are often used to improve phonological awareness. You divide a word at its vowel – ‘c’/ ‘at’     ‘c’ is onset         ‘at’ is rime.

In the Dr Seuss poem; ask children to identify words with 1,2 and 3 syllables?

Phonemes and Short Term Auditory Memory are big areas which I think I will leave till another time.

Music can be motivational for everyone. some children who struggle academically may find they shine in music. If so, give them time to do what they enjoy. This will give them confidence to tackle more challenging matters. Music can have an emotional affect on people. Some people connect more emotionally to music than they ever could to words. Music can improve a persons self esteem, help them to develop friendships and improve their mood. It can relieve stress and relax a person so that they are more in a comfortable learning rich environment. Music can release some of the chemicals dopamine into the brain which produce that ‘happy feeling’. So maybe a bit of music in everyones life is a very good thing! 

Maybe your ‘something new’ is to learn that musical instrument you have always wanted to?


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